Mental Health Colorado (MHC) President Dr. Vincent Atchity spoke with The Sopris Sun recently about bills before the Colorado legislature focusing on “a strong start for all children.”
MHC is a Denver-based mental health advocacy nonprofit whose work Atchity describes as “looking at the health of the mind across the lifespan for everybody. When we talk about lifespan, it’s birth to death, with mental health being a feature throughout our lifetime.”
While quality mental health care for all may seem overwhelming, Atchity said MHC continues to educate elected officials, the public and voters about Colorado’s mental health concerns.
Atchity explained, “No single bill is going to solve our problems.” However, he added, “We’ve got a complicated situation, so it takes a whole raft of things, and in any given year it’s still not going to do the trick, but we make some incremental progress.”
MHC has championed several bills in this legislative session which advocate for children.
The first bill, “Access to Behavioral Health Services” (SB23-091), addresses access to behavioral health services for Medicaid recipients under the age of 21 experiencing a qualifying risk factor that influences their health. The bill, if passed, would broaden access for care and “also create a greater understanding that there’s a whole bunch of circumstances that young people experience that makes getting some care and support worthwhile and necessary for the best outcomes,” Atchity said.
The bill has been fashioned after one that became law in California, “Although, the bill has been modified, so it’s more uniquely Coloradan,” he added.
Currently, Medicaid requires that doctors assign a DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) code to a child’s diagnosis in order to qualify for a reimbursement.
“There are all kinds of different things that kids go through, where behavioral health support would be valuable, and a diagnosis is no help at all,” Atchity continued. If the bill became law, it would eliminate the DMS coding requirement and “simply make care available for kids.”
The DSM coding requirement “is problematic because, on the one hand, diagnosing a three-year-old who needs support and care is not helpful in many cases and can have an impact beyond that child’s development,” he stated. “It’s not always helpful to be diagnosed and labeled with some kind of a condition when you’re only three, especially a condition that may not be completely understood.”
Another bill supported by MHC is “Protections for People with an Eating Disorder” (SB23-176). Eating disorders are among the deadliest of mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose.
According to statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills or laxatives.
Atchity shared, “Currently, access to care for eating disorders has been tied to BMI, or Body Mass Index. This means that access to care can be too limited to be helpful, because insurers or other payers require this BMI threshold to be met. That means people who are outside that threshold are not able to access reimbursable care, even though they’re living with a condition that is potentially life-threatening.”
The bill would eliminate the BMI requirement and also make the sale of diet pills to minors illegal without a prescription.
He added, “What motivated us to bring the bill forward were stories from patients about poor standards of care, discrimination and mistreatment in care settings.”
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet (D-Commerce City) is the lead sponsor for the “School Mental Health Assessment” bill (HB23-1003), which creates a mental health assessment program that offers annual mental health check-ups at public schools for sixth to 12th-grade students.
According to the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 40% of high school students said they experienced symptoms of depression last year. In 2021, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency when it came to youths’ mental health.
The language in the “Prohibit Corporal Punishment of Children” (HB23-1191) bill “prohibits a person employed by, or volunteering in, a public school, a state-licensed child care center, a family child care home or a specialized group facility from imposing corporal punishment on a child.” It further defines “corporal punishment” as the willful infliction of, or willfully causing the infliction of, physical pain on a child.
According to Colorado Public Radio, Colorado is one of 22 states that still allows corporal punishment of students. In 2017, a similar bill passed the House but did not pass the Republican-controlled Senate at the time.
Atchity added, “I don’t think it’s [corporal punishment] widely used out there, but we’re still on the books as allowing that.”
The bills outlined here are a small sampling of many bills currently before the Colorado legislature. For more information on mental health-related bills, go to www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/2023legislation
On another mental health care front, the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration released its three year strategic plan outlining key priorities and strategies focused on behavioral health care reform. The six key areas of focus are: improving access to behavioral health care, making behavioral health care more affordable, bolstering the behavioral health workforce, promoting accountability, uplifting lived experience and improving whole-person care.
You can read the full text of the strategic plan at www.bit.ly/CBHAstrategicplan